The Far North, Part 2 -- The World's Northernmost University: Going Arctic on the Looney Front

The journey back is beautiful, the snow-white peaks, the dark black crags soaring in their tormented pinnacles, gentle table tops and massive boulders, all bathed in the light of the full moon. Make that two full moons.
05/06/2014 02:54 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

If Longyearbyen on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen boasts of being the world's northernmost city, just 813 miles south of the North Pole, then Tromsᅢᄌ, 595 miles further south but still 218 miles north of the Arctic Circle, prides itself on being the Capital of the Arctic, with the world's most northerly university.

And with university come students -- some 9,500 of them. And with students comes fun, for this is Fun City -- Arctic, with more pubs per capita than any other Norwegian town and a week-end scene that sees the bars still buzzing and the buses still running hours after midnight.

Tromsᅢᄌ on a blustery winter day

Accessible by plane, bus and coastal ferry, the town of some 70,000 inhabitants spreads over a hilly island in a narrow sound just off the fjord-crisscrossed mainland amid the stunning scenery of the snow-capped Lyngen Alps.

Tromsᅢᄌ cathedral

Its compact center is charming with mainly wooden buildings, including a cathedral and museums, and splendid vistas at every turn, especially from the harbor front and the bridge linking it to the mainland.

Tromsᅢᄌ on a sunny winter day

The burghers pride themselves on hosting not only the world's northernmost university but also the world's northernmost almost-everything-else, above all Mack, the world's northernmost brewery.

Most fittingly, affixed to the outside wall next door, shines bright the glorious arms of Her Britannic Majesty, denoting that the British consul indeed knows how to pick his neighbors.

Her Britannic Majesty's consul close to the source

Across the bridge the Arctic Cathedral -- naturally the world's most northerly -- raises its nine sliced triangular arches, each at a different level, in a tribute to modernism with the spaces in between meant to represent the crevasses of glaciers and the curtains of the Aurora Borealis. Hmmm.

The Arctic Cathedral

Further up, a cable car whisks you 1,400 feet to the top of Mt. Storsteinen, with spectacular views over Tromsᅢᄌ and across to the snow-capped pinnacles on the other side. Behind, a vast crunchy white snow field stretches out to the horizon with more stunningly spectacular views of the Lyngen Alps.

A view from the summit

But what would winter in the Arctic be without winter sport? Time for Yours Truly to try his hand again, this time doggies first and snowmobiles second.

We're in the Lyngen Alps, about 50 miles to the east, we've just crossed a fjord by ferry, it's blowing a blizzard, visibility is down to 50 yards and I've just mushed the dog sled into a snow bank. We're listing at about 45 degrees. If this was a pinball machine I'd be ringing bells all over and flashing 'tilt' in big red letters.

What, us hurry?

"We" are Yours Truly at the sled's controls and an English lass who's never done it before -- dog-sledding that is. We're bringing up the rear of a seven dog-sled column led by a latter-day Brᅢᄐnnhilde, who is none too pleased.

Well, it's her own bloody fault. I've been mushing beautifully, applying the brakes with due diligence, leaning to the right to guide the hounds to the right, and to the left to guide them to the left. It's the sleds in front's fault. They keep on stopping, forcing me to brake all the time and our four hounds have veered ever so slightly to the left to avoid careening into the sled in front.

You've got to be kidding

"If we didn't keep stopping, this wouldn't have happened," said I merrily to Brᅢᄐnnhilde.

"We're stopping because you stopped and I had to come back to retrieve you from the snow hole," said she, all snarky.

"I stopped because they stopped," said I. "And they stopped because you stopped. Anyway, let's not get into a chicken-and-egg do-si-do about it. And talking about do-si-do, how'd you like to dance in the snow? Shall we waltz or foxtrot?"

Well, Brᅢᄐnnhilde has no sense of humor, and doesn't find me funny in the least. With the help of the people in front, we pull our sled back onto the track. We're off and away again, and it's downhill from then on, metaphorically that is.

Firstly, we have only four dogs instead of six. Why, asks I. Because the others are limping, said Brᅢᄐnnhilde. Well the ones we've got seem very much into limping, too, so what on earth can the others be like -- paraplegics? She now likes me even less. The way our lot are going it looks as if we're going to have to load them up on the sled while the English lass and Yours Truly do the pulling.

We're going on strike

Now it's snowing a blizzard again, but it's not cold enough for it to be nice and fluffy, so it blinds us by hitting us in the eyes with glass-like birdshot. Back at the hut I discover that the huge "warm" suit they gave me has let in all the melting snow and I'm sopping wet.

"Your suits are useless. I'm sopping wet," said I to Brᅢᄐnnhilde.

"Well there's nothing I can do about it now," said she.

True but... how do you say #!@% you, you &*%^$ in Old Norse?

Another view of Tromsᅢᄌ

Back across the fjord, the weather miraculously starts clearing. The Lyngen Alps are magnificent - massive snow-covered crags soaring perpendicularly in a myriad tormented spires, pinnacles and overhangs above lower slopes covered in forest, not particularly high, but forest none the less. The day's outing has not been totally in vain.

Tromsᅢᄌ with ferry

The snowmobiling fares no better. They make us ride two to a vehicle. I graciously allow the young Singaporean to take the controls as he's never done it before ("of course you can, old boy, I'm a veteran snowmobiler from Svalbard"), and he's just driven us smack into a tree.

We're on our side deep in snow in the frozen wastes of Norwegian Lapland near Camp Tamok, 50 miles east of Tromsᅢᄌ, 7 ᅡᄑ miles from the Swedish border and 20 miles from northern Finland.

The tour leaders speed back on their skidoos, extricate us from snow bank and tree branches, right the behemoth, and we're off again. At least, we're better off than the Singaporeans in the vehicle ahead. Now, how the hell do they end up on their sides under their snowmobile on the roof of a low barn?

How do I work this darn thing?

We can't go to the end of the track because it's been snowing heavily and the avalanche danger is at four on a scale of one to five. The mountainsides are streaked with avalanche tracks, and one just careened down onto the road yesterday.

Back at Camp Tamok reindeer are lying next to their sleighs. Their antlers are incredible, huge and all over the place like drunken multi-branched candelabra. They shed them every year, and some only have one set still standing, looking very lopsided. And to think I might have just eaten Rudolph's red nose -- they gave us reindeer soup for lunch. And no, it doesn't taste just like chicken.

No, these are not falsies

Back in Tromso it's 4 P.M. The town is hopping; the local Justin Bieber is strutting and prancing all over a stage in a square by the side of a wooden church and belting out his latest to hundreds of screeching teenie-boppers. I have an hour till the most quintessential of all Arctic tours, the hunt for the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights.

Where's the other one gone?

There are nine of us in the van. The sky is covered with thick clouds, but Roy the Aurora Borealis hunter checks with the weather bureau, fiddles with maps on his cell phone and finds a patch of beautiful clear skies 75 miles south-west of Tromsᅢᄌ on the shore of a fjord. It's bloody frigging freezing! It's about 12F, or -11C, much, much colder than Tromsᅢᄌ.

Oh, bugger off!

It takes the fellow travelers hours to put on their zillion layers of extra clothing, then set up their cameras on tripods to record the great green waves and purple curtains of the Northern Lights. Roy sets mine at the right aperture and puts it on one of his tripods. We wait. And wait. And wait.

And wait. Three bleeding hours. Roy keeps staring through his camera which should show wave activity not visible to the human eye. Zilch. We drive on some more. The night could not be more splendid, the snow-covered Lyngen peaks and stark crags bathed in golden moonlight. Again Roy checks through his camera. Again zilch.

A view from the bridge

But I have one up on all the others. I'm the only one to see two moons, thanks to the brilliance of my cataract-operated eyes that see the moon -- and only the moon -- as double when it's at an angle.

The journey back is beautiful, the snow-white peaks, the dark black crags soaring in their tormented pinnacles, gentle table tops and massive boulders, all bathed in the light of the full moon. Make that two full moons.

It's 2.45 a.m. Sunday morning by the time we're back. The town's still hopping, the bars overflowing, the buses still running, and the clouds are breaking even here. Two full moons over Tromsᅢᄌ.

Snow field on summit of Mt. Storsteinen

One day left to see the Lights. Not a cloud in the sky. Today is perfect after three weeks of total cloud banks, snow and rain. The full moon's gob-smacking the stark white mountain spires, groups of tourists are duly posted at vantage points high on plateaux or fjord shores, all kitted up in huge bulky 'warm suits.' Expensive, complex cameras with massive lenses float atop lofty tripods.

And nothing. Not the slightest glimmer of solar activity, no solar plasma invasions, no unfurling green curtains, no crimson waves, no purple people eaters, absolutely zilch. OK, the solar winds don't send charged particles every day, but still.
Tromsᅢᄌ view

Two hours. Three hours. Four hours. Zilch. Who turned off those frigging Northern Lights? I'm a failure. What Aurora Borealis? This is Aurora Boreanus!

On the plus side, driving out to our choice non-spots, the guide takes an amazing and complex road tunnel system beneath Tromsᅢᄌ, with roundabouts and junction roads all underground.

View across the sound

By the same author: Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.